V.V. Ganeshananthan joins the pantheon of second-generation South Asian writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali with her debut novel, Love Marriage. But this novel isn’t overtly about immigrant angst or “desi” identity. Her backdrop
is Sri Lanka, and the story is that of a family which fled the island and its civil war, but struggled to escape it mentally all their life, thousands of miles away from it.
Inside Colombo: Most of the novel is set in Sri Lanka. Photograph: Dominic Sansoni / Bloomberg
Yalini, the book’s American narrator, is born in July 1983 — often referred to as “Black July” in Sri Lanka because it marked anti-Tamil riots and the beginning of a full-blown civil war. She grows up witnessing her parents’ despair because of what is happening in their homeland. After Yalini leaves home for college, she is haunted by, among other things, her father’s recollections of his public library back in Jaffna.
The war finally hits close to home for Yalini when her long-lost uncle resurfaces. Her mother’s brother left his family to join the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) before Yalini was born. He’s now dying of cancer and wants to spend his last few months with his sister in Toronto, near the city’s Sri Lankan enclave called Little Jaffna. Yalini meets, for the first time, both her uncle and his daughter, Janani, who is engaged to someone in Toronto chosen by LTTE militants.
Slowly, Yalini absorbs the stories of her family that she never knew, and traces them through a series of marriages. There is her father’s mother, Tharshi, who is forced to replace her twin sister in a performance where she meets her future husband
after a freak accident disfigures the sister. When her husband dies young, she sees it as a debt repaid. There is her mother’s aunt, Mayuri, whose happy marriage is ruined by meddling neighbours. Another aunt, Harini, marries a “cheaply handsome and mustachioed” man who later abuses her. And there are Yalini’s own parents, who fell in love, independent of their two families. Theirs was a marriage, Yalini learns, that her uncle initially opposed, and threatened to destroy.
The book has some casually slipped-in, beautiful narrative details — on love among Sri Lankans during the war: “In a roomful of noisy Sri Lankans he learned to tell the clear bell sound of her bangles apart from the rest.” On her father’s profession, oncology: chosen by him because “it was about an entire body’s capacity for betrayal”.
But, in parts, the language is too contrived. In trying to be true to the flavour of the Tamil language, as the characters speak it, Ganeshananthan’s prose suffers a great deal.
The autobiographical element in the book is hard to miss. Both the novelist and her protagonist have roots in Jaffna, both have doctor fathers, and both, as the author admits in the acknowledgements, know very little Tamil.
For readers on both sides of the globe accustomed to minute details of immigrant life, Love Marriage doesn’t offer much meat. Told in impressionistic vignettes, it reads somewhat like memory functions — haphazard, fixated on a few moments, and relying on themes, rather than details. Yalini’s dying uncle explains when talking about his father, “I can’t really tell you about (him). I can only give you the perceptions of him I had when I was young.” We get similar “perceptions” through Yalini— that issues of war and terrorism can never be explained from one point of view; that arranged marriage doesn’t necessarily imply coercion.